In Exodus chapter 30 God commands the Israelites to offer incense in worship and writes in instructions to the Israelites as to how it should be offered.
“You shall make an altar on which to offer incense; you shall make it of acacia wood. It shall be one cubit long, and one cubit wide; it shall be square, and shall be two cubits high; its horns shall be of one piece with it... Aaron shall offer fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall offer it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening he shall offer it, a regular incense-offering before the Lord throughout your generations."
Exodus chapter 30 even has a recipe for holy incense which came with a command that it not be used to secular purposes. This tells us that other blends of incense were probably used for domestic air freshening as they are today in parts of the Middle East.
"The Lord said to Moses: Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (an equal part of each), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy; and you shall beat some of it into powder, and put part of it before the covenant in the tent of meeting where I shall meet you; it shall be for you most holy. When you make incense according to this composition, you shall not make it for yourselves; it shall be regarded by you as holy to the Lord. Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from the people."
There are a number of other references to incense being offered in worship, daily in the temple, including Exodus 25, Leviticus 2, 2 Chronicles 29 and a rather disturbing passage in Numbers 16 describing a mutiny and a terrible fire of judgement devouring 250 men who offered incense and themselves before the Lord as alternative leaders. (This seems also to mark out the fact that the Hebrews must have used incense for their domestic purposes, because they actually possessed 250 censers).
Incense is also mentioned in the book of psalms
"Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice." (Psalm 141:2)
Throughout the bible it is symbolic of prayer and worship and we can see from a number of these passages that Incense was used regularly in temple-worship, being offered both morning and evening.
There are fewer references to incense within the New Testament, and yet it is still there, being mentioned in the gospel of Luke. (Frankincense was one of the gifts of the magi), the letter to the Hebrews where the worship of the Earthly tabernacle is compared with the perfect offering of Christ the Great High Priest and in the book of Revelation:
"Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth; and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake." (Revelation 8:3-5)
In this famous passage from Revelation the prayers of the saints are offered to God as incense, and God acts in response to those prayers in a dramatic and spectacular manner.
It might be worth mentioning at this point, that in ancient times hardly anyone (apart from a few rich Romans, had access to running water. Nor was there an adequate draining system. Animals were used for transport (and animals tend to leave "presents" behind them), so basically the streets stank and most people stank too! As Paul Bradshaw (I believe - sorry I have lent the book to someone) once said "The importance of incense is not that it symbolises the ascending smoke of sacrifice, but it is a means of making tolerable the smells of unwashed humanity.” (Foundations in Ritual Studies p45, Bradshaw and Melloh)
Therefore those who were rich appointed a servant to walk the streets before them, fumigating the smell away with perfumed incense.
It might be worth mentioning at this point that the Latin word for incense is thus and this is the root word for the two terms usually used in liturgical churches; a thurible for the incense burner, and a thurifer for the person who carries the censer.
The fact that the incense normally paved the way for a VIP is the reason why the incense comes first in liturgical processions, followed by the cross, representing Jesus, the King of Kings, accompanied by candles. Sometimes an extra server accompanies the thurifer, a boat-boy or boat-girl, carrying the container for the incense. This container is often shaped like a boat, hence the term boat-boy. When a new member of the serving team is trained they often begin as boat boy before moving onto the more complex tasks of bearing candles, the cross or becoming a thurifer.
Incense was also used in Pagan worship and a number of martyrs in Roman times were killed for refusing to offer a pinch of incense in worship before a statue of the emperor.
We are not sure when ceremonial incense began to be used within Christian churches, but Egeria, the fourth century pilgrim mentions it in her travels to the Holy Land and its use is expected in the ancient liturgies of St James and St Mark.
By the Middle Ages incense was used regularly in churches and monasteries in processions, at funerals, at services on saints days when the altar and people were censed (taking inspiration from the worship in the temple) and at Mass when the gospel, the altar, the people and the gifts were censed. Five grains of incense were also placed within the Paschal (Easter) candle, symbolising the five precious wounds of Jesus upon the cross.
Of course at the Reformation everything changed and the churches were stripped of ceremonial. Many consider the use of incense to have died out at this point in time, but actually this simply isn't true. The reason, I'm sure, was that people still smelt! It was not until Victorian times that we had access to decent plumbing. There are a number of historical references to the purchase of incense in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the accounts of some churches and cathedrals including Ely, Canterbury and Barnstaple, but the incense was not used ceremonially. Instead it was burnt in a perfuming pan or brazier and generally a church was fumigated by a verger before Divine Worship began.
The ritual use of incense returned to the church in Victorian times after the rise of the Oxford Movement. Nowadays there are a number of variations in practice. Some Anglo-Catholic churches use incense every Sunday. Many cathedrals and greater churches use it only on special occasions such as major feasts of the church. (The definition of a major feast varies from church to church, but would normally include Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity and Ascension). In addition to this many cathedrals and greater churches would also use incense on "red letter" festival saints days, such as the apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary. If a church has evensong on one of these saints days the old monastic tradition of censing the altar during the gospel canticle has been reintroduced (normally the Magnificat, as this is the canticle that was sung at Vespers in the monastery). Some churches such as Ripon cathedral have a small brazier in front of the altar and place incense upon this during the canticle. In other churches and cathedrals, such as York Minster, a canon will cense the altar ceremonially during the Magnificat and then give the thurible to a server who will cense the people as a sign of their holiness before God and the holiness of the saints. Even some Evangelical churches will occasionally use incense,but not ceremonially, perhaps as part of a prayer station, perhaps at Epiphany, remembering the gifts of the magi; gold, frankincense and myrrh. Nowadays there is comparative freedom on the use of incense, but there is also some resistance to its use. If you are able to use incense I do encourage you to try it though. It does seem to have the affect of demarcating a space as being holy and it creates an atmosphere of prayer and worship. Personally I believe most of this resistance to the use of incense is due to it being used badly and the congregation being inflicted to a large amount of acrid charcoal smoke. In my next article I will tell you a little bit more about how to mix it and use it well, the types of incense currently available and ways in which you might use it in prayer and worship, either ceremonially or informally.